During the Space Generation Congress (SGCongress), the annual meeting organized by the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), Space Safety Magazine interviewed Markus Enenkel, a PhD researcher in the Department of Geodesy and Geoinformation at the Vienna University of Technology. Enenkel was the winner of the Austrian Space Apps competition sponsored by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) together with the Federal Ministry of Transport and Innovation (bmvit) and SGAC. Enenkel’s work links Earth observation to crowd sourcing in order to develop a new decision-support tool for humanitarian aid organizations that are active in the field of food security monitoring.

Can you briefly explain your application?
Droughts are highly complex phenomena. It is impossible to decrease uncertainties in decision-making by concentrating on one field of research only. Consequently, we link satellite-derived measurements of temperature, precipitation, soil moisture, and vegetation to a smartphone application. The satellite data provide information about environmental anomalies. A smartphone app enables aid organizations to access relevant information in affected regions. In addition, the app gives aid organizations the opportunity to collect information about socio-economic vulnerabilities, resulting in a gain in time compared to conventional assessments.

How did you have the idea for this application?
I realized that the soil moisture dataset that was produced at Vienna University of Technology was mainly used by researchers. Since soil moisture links atmospheric processes to land surface conditions, it is a key parameter for drought and flood assessment. Doctors Without Borders was interested in the idea of using these data to develop a food security monitor. It is crucial to shift the focus of aid organizations from emergency response to preparedness. Our approach can help to support this development.

How did you propose this idea to the final users?
Our idea was developed as a direct response to practical needs. However, when I started to work with satellite technologies, I realized that some potential users were simply afraid that the information came from military sources. Others initially did not see the added-value of space technologies or were simply too focused on traditional approaches, which were not very successful, though.

According to your experience, where else do you think space apps can help understand Earth and therefore help populations struck by drought or other natural disasters?
First of all, data providers need to translate their datasets into useable and comprehensible information for decision-makers. They must learn to speak the language of users. It is essential to develop user-friendly solutions together with the users, not for them. In the long-run I think that Earth observation and tailored solutions can assist the paradigm change from emergency response to disaster preparedness. Disaster risk is only one part of the equation. Considering the coping capacity of people is equally important. Maybe our idea inspires other research groups to develop similar solutions against the impact of other natural disasters.

Image caption: Space Apps competition’s logo (SGAC).